I browsed thru THE BROKEN BUDDHA
. Shravasti Dhammika made many worthwhile observations although his solutions to me have a Mahayana or Christian bent (rather than merely practising the Middle-Way). Regardless, an extremely insightful book. Well written.
I once shared a room with a young Australian monk who was very strict about Vinaya. One day I came back to the room and noticed that he was more morose than usual. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘I have been impure for a whole year without confessing it’ he said. ‘Which rule have you broken?’ I asked. ‘Nissaggiya Pacittiya 18,’ he replied, the rule against touching gold or silver, i.e. money. His confession surprised me because I knew that he was extremely strict about this particular rule. ‘But I’ve never seen you break that rule.’ I said. He hung his head and said, ‘I’ve been doing it ever since Iv been a monk.’ ‘How? When?’ I asked. He opened his mouth and pointed to a gold filling on one of his back teeth which he had apparently only just remembered.
I once stayed in a monastery in Sri Lanka where the monks always scrupulously examined the buckets of well water for tiny creatures before tipping them over their heads to bathe ( Pacittiya 20). One day one of the monks found that he had worms. He informed the monastery attendant who had previously been instructed in how to deal with such contingencies. The attendant brought a bottle of worm medicine, soaked the label of it, filled several other small unlabeled medicine bottles with water and then put them together in the wormy monk’s room. Several times during the following day the monk selected one or another of these bottles at random and drunk it until he had emptied them all thereby killing the worms without breaking the rules.
(D.I,126). The Buddha had no problems with Sonadanda’s way of paying respect presumably because he had sympathy with his predicament and because for him social formalities were of little importance. In another place the Buddha says, ‘I have nothing to do with homage and homage has nothing to do with me’ (A.III,30). Reading Ariyesako’s book and similar publications it would be easy to get the impression that being a Theravadin monk has everything to do with homage. Once Sariputta told the Buddha that he tried to compare himself to a lowly dusting rag or a humble outcaste child (A.IV,375). How different the enlightened Sariputta was from those unenlightened Theravadin monks today who sit on elevated thrones with their self-satisfied smiles and their sense of entitlement as they give orders to the laity and acknowledge the homage they receive from them with only the briefest nod or grunt!
Mahayana sutras often refer to what they call ‘all the proud arahats’ and centuries later many Theravadin monks still give the impression of being just slightly haughty and conceited. This incident occurred just recently in a small Buddhist group in Europe. A certain visiting monk who shall remain nameless was giving a talk to an audience of about thirty people which included a woman who had a hat on. The monk noticed this and apparently felt that it was a serious enough threat to his dignity to be eluded to in his talk. He deviated from the gist of his sermon and mentioned how important it is to render proper respect to the Sangha and how rude it would be to wear a hat, for example, while a monk was teaching the Dhamma. Everyone in the room turned to the embarrassed woman and a few minuets later she crept quietly from the room and burst into tears. It later emerged that this woman had terminal cancer and had lost all her hair while undergoing chemotherapy. She wore a hat to hide her disfigurement. In Sri Lanka I once attended a talk by a well-known meditation teacher. When he entered the hall several people failed to stand up. Visibly annoyed at not getting the respect he believed was his due, he walked to the front of the hall, harangued the organizers of the talk and the audience and then stormed out. I have witnessed similar performances on several other occasions.
In the Tathagataguhya Sutra and many other Mahayana works it says that a bodhisattva will ‘bow before all beings.’
Theravada certainly has a marked negative outlook, negativity being the tendency to consider only the bad, the ugly or the deficient side of things. Traditionally, Theravadin monks will attend funerals but none of life’s joyful or happy rites of passage. They can see the spiritual significance in sickness, decay and death but nothing positive about a wedding, a birth or a coming of age.
Now one might ask; ‘If Theravada is so negative why are people in Theravadian lands so warm and friendly?’ While it is true that people in Thailand, Sri Lanka etc. certainly are smiling and good natured the reason for this, I would submit, is not because they practice Theravada but, on the contrary, because they don’t practice it.
As soon as they start taking Dhamma study or meditation seriously that distinctive vale of Theravada gloom settles upon them and they become withdrawn, self-absorbed and morbid. Go to a festival in a Sri Lankan temple and you will find color, smiles and an atmosphere of simple piety. But then go to the typical meditation center. The buildings are as functionally ugly as a municipal toilet block, the rooms are stark, no one smiles and the mediators walk around looking like the long-term inmates of a psychiatric hospital. Indeed it is not unknown that some people who spend time in these meditation centers end up having serious mental problems. A joke circulating in certain circles in Sri Lanka in the 1990’s went ‘One month in Kanduboda, six months in Angoda,’ Kanduboda being a wellknown meditation center in Colombo and Angoda being the city’s main mental asylum.
Outside the small rural town of Matale in Sri Lanka is the site of Aloka Vihara where the Pali Tipitaka was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE. In 1954 the abbot of this monastery decided to build an international Buddhist research library. Huge amounts of money were collected,
Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia laid the foundation stone and eventually the main complex was completed. It stands there today without a single book in it. Neither the abbot or any of the monks under him knew anything about librarianship, the monastery is miles from the nearest town and
there were no people in the district who could use such a library anyway. The temple’s library was built for no other reason than that there was believed to have been one there two thousand one hundred years earlier.
Some years ago I attended a conference on Engaged Buddhism which was held on an island in a river near Bangkok. One of the guests was the then Sangharaja of Cambodia, a gentle benign old man who smoked a Sherlock Holmes pipe. After the closing ceremonies all the participants
gathered on the bank of the river waiting to be ferried across to the other side where the buses were waiting. First to go was the Sangharaja. He and an attendant monk were taken across by the man who operated the raft by pulling it with ropes. When the raft got near the opposite bank the two
monks jumped off simultaneously causing the raft to tip so that the man fell into the muddy water. It was a little careless of them but accidents sometimes happen. The point of my story is this though. The two monks looked back in response to the splashing and then without the slightest
hesitation, without any attempt to help and without even an expression of concern on their faces, they walked to the bus and took their seats leaving the ferryman floundering in the water. I and the other Westerners who witnesses this incident winced with embarrassment and several of us went down to try to help the man. Significantly, none of the Asians at the conference seemed effected by the two monks’ behavior and I strongly suspect that they would have only thought it improper if the monks had tried to help the man and got a little mud on themselves. The Theravadin concept of a good clergyman is the exact reverse of what it is in most other religions. Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy are meant to be servant of their community. In Theravadin lands it is the community who are the servants of the clergy.
I know of a monk who consented to give a talk on Buddhism to an inter-religious conference. As
he got up to deliver his address he suddenly remembered that the Vinaya forbids a monk teaching
the Dhamma to anyone wearing shoes (Sekhiya 61) and of course everyone in the conference had
the offending items on their feet. After long discussions with the organizers the audience was
informed of the problem and asked if they would take their shoes off. To their credit they had the
good grace and the good manners to acquiesce to the monk’s requirements. But the good grace and
the good manners almost always comes from the other party, not the Theravadin monk. He is very
used to getting his own way and if that means inconveniencing, as in this case, a hundred or more
people, then so be it.
I still vividly recall my first encounter with the ‘institutionalized narcissism’ of Theravada. I had
just arrived in Sri Lanka and had been asked by the abbot of the monastery where I was staying to
attend a dana or ceremonial feeding. It was in 1976 when there was food rationing and widespread
hunger in the Island. The abbot had asked me to accompany four other monks. My companions
grumbled because the only way to get to the house was by bus and they wanted to go by car. The
house turned out to be a slum, our hosts were a desperately poor family and the dana was for their
infant daughter who had died seven days previously. The senior monk gave the usual glib sermon
about what a waste of time it is to grieve because death is inevitable and then we were served an
enormous meal. I found it difficult to eat. The heartbroken mother, her gaunt children and the
wrenched house had all taken my appetite away. The other monks showed not the slightest interest
in the family’s tragedy and tucked into the food with the usual gusto. At the end of the meal we
were each given a tin of powered milk, a rare and expensive luxury at the time, and it is quite
possible that the family had borrowed money to provide us with our meal and gift. When we got up
to go I hid my tin under the seat hoping that the mother would find it later and use it to feed her
surviving children. As we left there were a few whispered exchanges and the man of the house ran
off to get a taxi. The senior monk had subtly suggested to him that it might be better if we returned
to the temple in the style to which monks are accustomed. No doubt he ‘did not expressly give a
command’ and was careful to ‘word it right’ as Thanissaro and Ariyesako would recommend.
Unfortunately, before the taxi arrived the woman found the tin of milk and rushed out to give it to
me. I told her gently that I didn’t need it and that she should keep it but this suggestion horrified her
and she insisted that I take it. The man arrived with the taxi, gave yet more of his meager earnings
to the driver for the fare and we left. As we drove back to the temple one of the monks quite
innocently said to me; ‘You don’t want your tin of milk so can I have it?’
The Buddha had an ambivalent attitude towards women. While acknowledging that they are as
capable of awakening as men there were also times when he seems to have been skeptical about
their moral and spiritual abilities. Theravada on the other hand is quite unambiguous on this matter
– it is uniformly misogynistic. In fact, Theravada’s exclusion of women from a meaningful role in
the spiritual life has been even more complete than that of Islam’s. There have been at least a few
Muslim women saints, poets and theologians; in Theravada until the 20th century there have been
none that I know of. This exclusion of woman is particularly ironic when one realizes that to a very
large extent it is woman who seem to keep the religion alive. In Theravadin countries women are
the most conspicuously pious. It is mainly they who look after the monks, run around for them and
make sure their dana arrives on time. Audiences at sermons are often made up almost entirely of
women. Go to any monastery in Sri Lanka on a full moon day and the overwhelming majority of
those keeping the eight Precepts will be women, usually, as at sermons, very old ones.
Despite this monks treat all females as being physically and ritually impure. Thai monks will not
take anything directly from a woman’s hand and in Burma they will not visit the home of a woman
who is menstruating nor will a woman in that condition visit a monastery or temple. In Thailand,
particularly in the north, women are not allowed to circumambulate stupas because their inherent
impurity will destroy the power of the relic within. In Burma they are not allowed to touch certain
sacred Buddha images, enter simas or even some particularly holy shrines. When I visited the
beautiful shrine at Kathiayo in Burma I noticed the large sign for the benefit of Western female
tourists. It read, ‘Ladies Must Not Enter.’
One cannot help but notice how much time Theravadin monks spend in the company of females.
There are good reasons for this. Like the monks themselves many middle and upper class Asian
women have little to do. These ladies will hover around the table as monks eat, fussing over them
and occasionally pointing to particular dishes and suggesting that the monk try that because she
prepared it especially for him. Ask for a glass of orange juice and they will lovingly put three
spoons of sugar in it instead of the usual one. Reach for the water bottle and they will rush up and
unscrew the top for you. Wipe your mouth with the paper napkin and it will be immediately
whisked away and be replaced by a new one. They cut the fruit into small bite-sized cubes and put a
toothpick in each so that the monks can eat it with ease. In Burma they actually peel the grapes for
the monks. I am not joking, this is absolutely true! Years of this sort of female pampering combined
with few duties and constant adulation has a devastating effect on a male.
Like spoiled children many Theravadin monks end up having a marked preoccupation with their
health. The cupboards in the monks’ rooms are cluttered with aspirins, balms, various creams and
bottles of vitamin tablets and the cupboards in the danasalas are stocked with jars of fortified drinks
and supplements. Elderly ladies are always inquiring about monks’ health and any suggestion that
he has ‘a slight headache’ or that he’s ‘feeling a bit poorly this morning’ will initiate yet another
round of anxious medicine buying. It is quite difficult to stave off all the female attention.
When Theravadins wish to recommend their version of the Buddha’s teachings to others they often
say things about it which sound very impressive but which bear little relation to reality. Some of
these claims have been repeated so frequently and often in almost the same words that they have
become literally slogans -‘Buddhism teaches that you should not just believe but find out for
yourself;’ ‘Buddhism it not a religion, it is a way of life;’ ‘Buddhism is rational’; Buddhism is not
pessimistic or optimistic, it is realistic.’ Western Theravadins can be excused for believing and then
repeating such claims; they usually know little about how Theravada is practiced in Asia and even
less about its history. The situation is very different with Asian Theravadins and to that degree they
are guilty of a good deal of dishonesty. One of the most often repeated of these slogan-like claims is
‘Not a drop of blood has ever been shed in the name of Buddhism,’ by which of course is meant
Theravadin Buddhism. Even a cursory acquaintance with Asian history will show that this claim is
Tibetan Buddhists can be fiercely sectarian, sometimes even more so than Theravadins. However,
within each sect there is a high degree of unity and cohesion. Each has its leader and teachers who
are looked up to and who decide general policy. Stronger centers in one country help weaker ones
in another, they share teachers, cooperate with each other in charitable work, etc. The Foundation
for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition for example, had more than eighty centers
worldwide, it run numerous social service programs including schools, a prison project, clinics and
hospices and has its own highly successful publishing company. The Foundation’s several affiliated
monasteries educate and train monks and nuns who are then sent to the different centers which in
turn help support the monasteries. Members and friends around the world, and they amount to many
thousands, are kept informed of the Foundation’s activities through its magazine which is published
in several languages. Theravada’s ‘every man for himself’ attitude makes joint efforts like this very
difficult and guarantee that most centers and groups in the West remain small and isolated. In the
case of ethnic centers in the West (i.e., centers with Asian monks catering mainly to Asian
expatriates) they are usually unable to work with each other due to personal jealousies, nikaya
rivalries and in the case of Sri Lankan temples, caste antagonism.
Another thing that makes Tibetan Buddhism more attractive to Westerners than Theravada is that it
has a richer contemplative tradition and more of its monks are experienced in meditation. I agree
with Bhikkhu Bodhi when he says, ‘The main reasons (Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) have gained in
popularity over the Theravada is, I believe, because within their fold the lineage of meditation has
been kept more alive than in mainstream Theravada… Rarely do (Theravadin monks in the West)
exhibit the same degree of spiritual vitality as the Mahayana and Vajrayana masters.’
If Anathapindika is the archetypal Theravadin lay man then Asoka is the archetypal Theravadin
monarch. But this statement needs to be qualified because there are in fact two King Asokas – the
Asoka of history and the Asoka of the Theravada tradition. The Asoka of history is now well known
to anyone acquainted with Buddhist or Indian history. Shocked at the suffering caused by his
expansionist policies he renounced war and tried to govern his empire using Buddhist principles. He
built hospitals, sponsored the cultivation of medical plants, established nature reserves, promoted
religious tolerance and humanized the administrative and judicial systems. But the Asoka of history,
the real Asoka, was unknown until his numerous edicts were deciphered and translated in the 19th
century. Prior to this the only Asoka known to Theravadins was the Asoka of the tradition whose
life and deeds are told in the Mahavamsa, the Dipavamsa, the Samantapasadika and several other
works. And what a different Asoka this one is! Astonishingly, Theravadin literature makes no
mention at all of Asoka’s welfare work, his paternal concern for his subjects, his vision for a
spiritual society or even of his dramatic conversion. The traditional Asoka is portrayed as a good
Theravadin lay man, that is, one who spends his time waiting on the monks and who lavishes all his
wealth on them. The Mahavamsa says; ‘He fed 60,000 monks regularly in his palace. He had very
costly hard and soft food prepared, decorated the city, brought the monks to his palace, fed them,
and presented them with the requisites.’ Then we are told that he gave over 9000,000,000 in cash to
build monasteries, stupas and to feed yet more monks. But there is no mention whatsoever of him
doing any good to anyone other than to monks. Once again, in the hands of Theravadin editors, a
remarkable man who genuinely cared about the spiritual, moral and material welfare of humankind
was revised and edited into one who did nothing for anybody except the monks. This has been the
norm throughout Theravadin history – all the best social virtues are highjacked by and diverted
towards the Sangha.
Vinaya formalism and clericocentricity have had considerable influence in retarding social
compassion and consequently social reform in Theravadin countries. The practice of slavery is a
good example of this. The Buddha said that the buying and selling of human beings is a wrong
means of livelihood (A.III,207), and monks were not allowed to accept gifts of slaves either (D.I,5).
This disapproval continued at least until the time of the compiling of the Vinaya which also forbids
monks from owning slaves. And yet we know from history that the Sangha was a slave owning
institution for centuries. The well-known Galapata inscription from 12th century Sri Lanka mentions
a gift of ninety slaves to a monastery so they could ‘serve their lordships.’ Getting around an
inconvenient rule like the one against owning slaves was child’s play for Theravadins. In the
commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya Buddhaghosa explains exactly how to do it. When someone
comes to your monastery to offer you a slave simply refer to the slave as ‘a servant’ and say ‘I
accept this servant.’ This is a good example of the ‘juggling definitions’ stratagem recommended by
Thanissaro. During one period in Sri Lankan history it came to be considered meritorious to liberate
slaves, as indeed it would be. This is one of many examples throughout Theravadin history where,
periodically at least, some monks and lay people genuinely tried to practice the spirit of the
Dhamma and apply it in the social domain. Sadly, it is also a good example of what usually
happened to such efforts. The monks’ demand for attention and pampering and their constant
preaching about making merit by giving to them meant that by the 5th century this humane practice
had degenerated into a mere game.
In the 1970’s and 80’s an organization called Sarvodaya became prominent in Sri Lanka and
attracted much attention in the West. Supposedly based on Theravadin and Gandhian principals
Sarvodaya ran numerous development programs in rural areas throughout Sri Lanka. The
organization’s founder A.T.Aryaratna took Pali words like dana and coined new terms like
shramadana, ‘the gift of labor,’ in an attempt to give his concepts a Theravadin feel. Numerous
books and articles have been written portraying Sarvodaya as a authentic Theravadin and home
grown model of development rather than one derived from Western concepts. The truth is rather
different. One of Sarvodaya’s goals was to try to get monks involved in village development. This
met with lukewarm results. Eventually at considerable expense a Sarvodaya Training Institute was
established with the purpose of training such monks for this role but it soon had problems with
recruitment or even with keeping or motivating the few monks who did come forward and
eventually it closed down. Gombrich and Obeyesekere have given their reasons for this failure.
Most young monks were just waiting to finish their education before disrobing; they were not really
interested in long term commitment; some were not suited for social work; others were aware of
public disapproval of monks doing social work.* I would agree with this assessment but I think it is
only part of the story. After all, Sarvodaya not only failed to awaken the monk’s social compassion
in a focused and sustained way, it failed to motivate it in lay people too.
The Mahabodhi Society was started with both a Buddhist missionary and a social service agenda in
1893 by the Westernized and Christian-influenced Anagarika Dharmapala. Generously financed by
an American patron* the society was able to build dispensaries, orphanages, vocational training and
industrial schools and a seminary. But Dharmapala had constant difficulties trying to find dedicated
monks to run them and by the 1940’s most of the social and educational work had withered away.
Today, other than commemorating past achievements, providing accommodation for Sri Lankan
pilgrims in India and fighting court cases the Mahabodhi Society does almost nothing. The
Gramasamvaradhana Movement in Sri Lanka in the 1930’s had a similar history. Its initial success
was due to a few exceptional monks but it too soon floundered.
In 1977 the first of Ajahn Chah’s disciples arrived in the West and since that time they have
established thirteen monasteries worldwide and have attracted a large following. In the UK for
example there are nearly forty meditation groups associated with this movement. Given its
fundamentalist Vinaya practice, its clericocentrisity and its strong adherence to Thai cultural forms,
the success of the Ajahn Chah movement comes as something of a surprise. This success can be
explained mainly by the number of exceptionally gifted and inspiring teachers the movement has so
far produced. These teachers have been able to attract a following by their high ethical standards,
their commitment and the very practical and appealing way they present meditation. Their ability to
rationalize their fundamentalist Vinaya practice has also been able to mollify people who might
otherwise be put off by such things. How the Ajahn Chah movement will fare in the long term
remains to be seen though. If it can continue to attract candidates for the monkhood and to produce
inspiring teachers it may keep growing. If it is unable to do this it may have to rely more and more
on Thai monks and will then slowly degenerate into just another ethnic organization catering to the
ritual needs of expatriate Asians. Another potentially more serious problem is that all the Ajahn
Chah monasteries in the West are largely dependant on funds from Thailand. If this money stops for
some reason the movement may be unable to maintain itself.
The two most promising movements in the West based on the Buddhism of the Pali Tipitaka are the
Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
If the Dhamma of the Pali Tipitaka is ever to be accepted in the West it is going to have to shake off
the retarding influence of Theravada. Having described how Theravada is and why it is like that I
would like to offer at least a partial vision of how a new Buddhism might be.
It would be easy to think that because Theravada has such ancient and apparently deep roots in Sri
Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia that it will be there forever. But this would be a
dangerous assumption. Religions allegiances can and do change very fast, particularly in the
modern world. For eight hundred years Buddhism flourished in Udyana in what is now northern
Pakistan but for reasons that are not clear it eventually withered away. When the Chinese pilgrim
Hiuen Tsang visited in the 7th century (before the advent of Islam it should be noted) he was able to
write; ‘There are some 1400 old monasteries although they are now generally ruined and desolate.
Formerly there were some 18,000 monks in them but gradually their numbers have dwindled so that
now there are very few.’ For nearly a millennia Indonesians were predominately Buddhist or Hindu
and they raised spectacular monuments to their respective faiths. But within a remarkably short
period and without any apparent persecution both gave way to Islam. During a recent visit to
Cambodia I was shocked to see how many evangelical Christian churches there were and how many
people they attracted. Just thirty years ago there were almost no Christians in the country, now they
make up a significant minority and all indications are that their numbers will continue to grow.